A Degree of Homelessness

They’re the most untraditional college students of all, but for these three homeless people in Hawaii, college may be their way out.


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Residents at the shelter Jake Miller lives in have two crates for their belongings.

Miller’s few belongings must be dealt with carefully. Because of theft and the shelter rules, nothing can be left in the bunk areas, and possessions need to be packed and repacked daily, like a jigsaw puzzle.

“There’s a crate room where you get two milk-crate-type things and you pack in whatever you can in there.  They open it three times a day. I’m trying to fit a backpack, books, a computer for school, a pair of shoes, a bathroom bag into this confined area. It’s hard to do simple things, like get a towel to dry.”

There are struggles of a different kind once Miller is on campus. At KCC, he opens the door to the cafeteria, saying, “You know, I’ve never gone in here. It kind of makes me feel anxious, you know, because of the age thing.”

“Most of the kids in there are in their 20s. I wonder if they’re looking at me and thinking, ‘why is he in college? What the heck have you done with your life up until now?’ I couldn’t see myself sitting in the middle of a table full of them.”

Miller is acutely aware that these younger students have an edge academically. “I’ll see the kids from my class just sitting around and BSing in the library, and I’m sitting there scratching my head and saying, ‘How do I get my thoughts organized? How do I find my way to the books I need, and then do what I need to do?’ It’s so easy for them.”

“My first project was an English paper. You do one wrong click and you screwed up your whole paper, which I did about 37 times. But I finally got it right.  I had two short reports to do, and I got an A-minus on both of them.”

Math class came with a different problem. “For the first week, I was waiting for the guy to start teaching. Then I found out it was a self-paced class. I was so mad at first. I wanted someone to be teaching me, especially being out of it for so long. I’m teaching myself math after 21 years.”

“I’m telling myself things like; Don’t get frustrated, you weren’t that great in math today. No big deal. Tomorrow you’ll be better. My average in math right now is a 94.  I’m really, really determined.  I don’t care if I gotta sleep at the library, I’m going to do it and do it well.”

Future on Loan

College educations, even at a community college, don’t come cheap. So how can these homeless students afford school, when by definition they are unable to afford even a place to live?

The answer lies in the unique objective of the student loan: to serve those with the most need. Other loans are based on the ability to pay money back. Student loans act more like an investment in a student’s future.

“We serve the homeless as any other student. For financial-aid purposes, eligibility is based on financial need. And they definitely have need,” says Jennifer Bradley, financial-aid specialist at KCC.

Both Kaahumanu and Miller receive less than $1,000 in public assistance per month, putting them well within the low-income guidelines for a maximum student-aid award. Receiving school loans doesn’t affect their ability to get public benefits, which is good, because both they both bank at least part of their small benefits for the future.

The prospect of payback doesn’t bother them—yet. “I can’t think about paying the money back yet. If I start stressing out, I’ll lose my mind,” Miller says. 

“The good thing about student loans is they stretch it over 20, 30 years.  Not that you want to do that, but it’s not like I’ll have this huge payment.  You just have to start paying. Hopefully I’ll have a good position then, and start paying my loans off.”

Loaning money to the homeless is a bet, but most schools and lenders find it no more risky than betting on any other low-income student. For the homeless, it means a way out.

Home, for Now

Falynn Medeiros opens the door to the studio apartment she shares with her daughter and boyfriend, Peter. She was able to get a spot at the Ulu Ke Kukui transitional housing development, where they can stay for two years. It’s no more than a room with a hot plate, coffeemaker and refrigerator, but the price is right: $500 a month.

The desk, crammed between the front door and the foot of the bed, is piled six books high with course texts. She sits there every morning to study while her boyfriend and daughter sleep; one last-minute cram before school. Once they wake, her day is a blur of arranging for daycare, back-to-back classes, and an eight-hour evening shift at Starbucks. At work, she squeezes studying into her dinner break, which is only 10 minutes long.

This spring when she graduates, Medeiros will become the first person in her family to graduate college.

“When I had to fill out the application for welfare, it asks what your father’s highest level of school is. My dad didn’t even graduate from high school. It really made me think about it. It’s going to be so awesome to be the first.”

She’s been accepted for the bachelor’s program in anthropology at UH-West Oahu, where she’ll pursue her dream of becoming a forensic anthropologist. It may seem farfetched, but she’s done her homework on how to get there.

“I’m going for my anthropology degree, but I can get a certificate in forensic anthropology at the same time.  A lot of the classes overlap and it counts for both, so I figure, why not?” She has a list of places she’d like to work, a plan for interning and, most importantly, the drive to get it all done.

“People group everyone who’s on welfare as just living off the system and not doing anything. I go to school and I work,” she says. “I collect welfare for food, because if I didn’t have that money for food, I wouldn’t have money for anything else. But I’m not ashamed of where I am.”

 

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